Max Reger wasn’t shy about going public with his views:
“I believe that my [total admiration] toward Brahms, my glowing reverence for the great old masters is too well known to express it here.” [Written in defence of Brahms, who was deemed, by so many musical “experts” of the day, to merely emulate Beethoven rather than bring anything “new” into the realm of classical music.]
There is little doubt that this recording of five works for clarinet and piano would ever have come to fruition if Reger hadn’t heard Brahms’s Op. 120 clarinet sonatas in 1900, just as the Hamburg native would never have written them (along with the trio and quintet) if he hadn’t succumbed to the incredible artistry of clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, happily (for the rest of the world) enticing Brahms out of retirement.
Clarinetist Alan Kay and pianist Jon Klibonoff are the most-worthy advocates of this seldom-heard repertoire, bringing their considerable talents, technique and obvious passion for the music to bear in convincing fashion.
After the miniature “Albumblatt” deftly sets the musical stage, for Op. 49, No. 1, its well-balanced four moments soon reveal that Reger’s style, abilities and vision are but an excursion where those of Brahms are a journey.
Many facets of the master’s elements (notably long legato lines, rhythmic push and pull coupled with edgy syncopation) are much in evidence; MIA are moments of truly dry staccato (all the better to contrast), solo piano statements and—most importantly—the overarching feeling of inevitability.
From a technical point of view, a slightly more supple reed selection by Kay might have moved the ensemble with Klibonoff from commendable to razor sharp (speak notes for me!).
The “Vivace” is a marvellous Invitation to the Dance which all should except; the “Larghetto” provides the most moving and memorable movement of the four.
Op. 49, No. 2 is by far a superior achievement. Reger—almost as if No. 1 was a rehearsal—much more successfully exploits the registers and possibilities of his protagonists.
“Allegro dolente” is notable for its compelling introspection and wonderful sense of unified flow. A generous helping of triplets is most welcome; the delicious harmonic surprises add still more to the ear’s engagement.
Saucy fun informs the bookends of “Vivacissimo,” while its middle section is the model of calmo.
As with No. 1, Reger truly excels with this “Larghetto” infusing it with more triplets (expertly rendered by Klibonoff) and soaring/searing lines ideally controlled by Kay.
Surprisingly (to those who expect a BIG finish), the finale is an easygoing sorbet to cool off the previous emotional heat. Homage to Brahms (conscious or not) comes in a more than passing reference to the “quiet” theme from the “Maestoso” of Piano Concerto No. 1 (which can trace its lineage to Beethoven’s second symphony, “Larghetto”), or as the master tellingly said, “All art is the same and speaks the same language.” So why not share an idea amongst friends? The closing adieu defines “affable” with quiet surety and complete satisfaction.
Reger’s third and last sonata is filled with soothing moments and longing. As with the other two—and just like Brahms’ third symphony—every movement ends slipping away into the night rather proudly declaiming cadential power and cue for applause.
The opening “Moderato” overflows with quiet reverence along inner strength and intense, personal dialogues. Here, the recording’s balance is the best of the disc: true partners in all senses. Once more, Brahms finds his way into the mix with references to the chromatic germ that fuels Symphony No. 2. The closing section is a haunting farewell that eerily lingers in memory.
The ensuing “Vivace’s” opening is marvellously playful and at times a nickel short of jazz. Its reflective “Trio” further demonstrates Reger’s love of extreme contrast. Kay reinforces brooding melody with a discreet use of vibrato. The traditional return heralds a sturdy, positive finish until Klibonoff’s tolling bass lines send everything back into the depths.
The only “Adagio” of the recording is truly the heart of Op. 107 and in many ways all of the music presented. Its plaintive song will move even the toughest curmudgeon into experiencing the heady joy of darkly beautiful thoughts. Klibonoff provides a superb touch when it is his turn to take the melodic lead.
At last, the “Allegretto con grazia” discovers the effectiveness of staccati—inside and out—in the most optimistic movement thus far. The tempo works ideally, yielding more grace than bravura before Reger insists on one look back at was already experienced and what might have transpired, had his own circumstances (battling all sorts of demons) been different. Foreboding, yet again, finds its way into the mix and finishes the work.
The 90-second “Tarantella”, with Kay’s “catch me of you can” exuberance (Klibonoff does!) , momentarily cleanses the palette but for some (wanting to contemplate the music more or less in the same direction/layout as Reger wrote it), would have been much more welcome following “Albumblatt. JWR